Vancouver bus drivers launch safety awareness campaign

Road rage has an entirely different meaning for transit operators like Anna Palumbo, who had death threats hurled at her while as she was driving her Vancouver route. 
As part of a new campaign introduced late last year to help mitigate those types of assaults on transit operators in Vancouver, the union representing drivers is offering a $15,000 reward (previously $2,000) to the public for reporting assaults on workers. 

Assaults on transit operators in the metro Vancouver area have increased 20 per cent, according to Nathan Woods, president of Unifor Local 111.

“We are the frontline worker, and the brunt of the animosity gets delivered to us. So, whether it’s hitting, punching, verbal assaults — we’ve had enough,” Woods said, noting five per cent of assaults are criminal and, in some cases, operators have been choked or had their head stomped on. “It’s gotten out of control.”

Take Palumbo, for instance, who was verbally attacked by the same passenger twice in one day — first while driving her vehicle, and after while on break at the station.

She was diagnosed with adjustment disorder, which she described as a very mild form of post-traumatic stress disorder. She was prescribed medication and counselling through TransLink’s Employee Assistance Program for two months before she was able to return to work in January.

“We are the ones who get you from one destination to the other, and we try to do it in a very safe manner,” Palumbo said. “In the six years that I’ve been driving, I’ve been called names left and right. I’ve been threatened with inanimate objects and it never really bothered me. But once this person stated she was going to kill me, it affected me so badly. All of a sudden it was like someone had taken a big bucket of emotions and dumped it on me.”

Her experience is not unique to the West Coast. The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) estimates at least one operator is assaulted per day. In January, a 21-year-old man was sentenced to 60 days in jail and two years probation after he spit on a TTC bus driver and attempted to hit him with an umbrella.

Vancouver’s new reward system will serve as a two-way street, Woods said. Because a percentage of assaults are triggered by a reaction, a hard-line reporting rubric will hold operators to a higher standard.

“We’re personalizing ourselves instead of just having us as a cog behind the wheel so to speak,” he explained. “If you become more familiar with a transit operator, you might be more willing to stand up in defense of them. And to be honest with you, it will also create a stronger professional image for ourselves to stand up to.”

Despite the recent spike in assaults on British Columbia’s transit operators, Doug Kelsey, chief operating officer at TransLink (the company which owns and operates public transport in the metro Vancouver area), said the reward incentives are just one step towards improving safety of its employees.

“Assaults can range from threats, to spitting and physical assaults,” Kelsey said, adding that “a transit operator is not just a bus operator because these assaults occur against our rail staff.”

For instance, TransLink’s bus operator, Coast Mountain Bus Company, implemented a safety campaign which saw the installation of security cameras, emergency buttons and GPS radio systems for reporting incidents. As well, "fare-paid" zones were created to reduce disputes over fares. The company had looked at piloting a Plexiglas shield, but operators voted against over concerns of glare, ventilation and isolation from passengers.

Instead of a barrier, Woods cited transit operations in Europe, where buses are designed with a left exit for an operator — essentially an operator’s door, which could be one possible solution.

TransLink’s transit police force — Canada’s only police force dedicated solely to policing transportation — has more than 165 officers and 65 civilian support staff. That provides a visible presence throughout the system, and helps mitigate harm, Kelsey said.

“Transit police preserve the peace, bring a cohesiveness with the numerous other regional jurisdictional police forces... and serve the safety and security needs of transit employees by conducting regular patrols and deploying officers to watch over certain routes where or when the risk of assault may be higher,” he said.

But for Palumbo, more needs to be done before she can feel completely safe on the job.

“I think they should put more people on the buses. Right now, transit and security are focusing on the sky trains and they’re not as visible on the buses with us,” she said. “They need to step it up, that’s all there is to it. Some of us don’t feel safe out there.”

The $15,000 reward is contributed in part by Unifor Local 111, Unifor Local 2200, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 134, Coast Mountain Bus Company and West Vancouver Blue Bus.

Sabrina Nanji is a news editor at Canadian Labour Reporter, a sister publication of COS.

Related article:

Fare justice: Stiffer penalties for assault called on to help protect bus drivers